Starting again in a new country is like starting a new job times a thousand. Your face hurts from smiling constantly on the off-chance that someone might catch your eye and think to themselves, “Well now. There’s a woman smiling like a maniac at no-one in particular, who looks like she’d be good company and almost certainly voted Remain. She’s kind of hyperventilating, but I expect that’s less about destabilising anxiety than it is a palpable effervescence for life. Where do I sign?”
And the wonderful thing about our Newcomers Class at Dutch School is that you’re guaranteed to start school with families who are just as new, as clueless, as scared, as anxious, as bewildered as you are, straight from the bat.
“You or your husband into golf?” said American Dad, as we left school on one of those first mornings, trying not to think about the situation we’d just dropped our kids into. I was unlocking my bike like an emotionally-balanced person whose heart wasn’t oozing out of the soles of her shoes and running into the gutter.
“Er, I’m not, no,” I replied. “I don’t know if he is-“
“Well if he is,” pounced American Dad, “I think my club has a great deal.”
“I mean it’s not cool to talk about money. But it’s fifteen hundred euros.”
“You think he’d be interested?”
I paused. My Lawyer had never expressed any interest in golf. But he had expressed an interest in having a fourth or fifth friend. The question was, really: Would he be interested in paying fifteen hundred euros for a new friend?
“I’ll ask,” I said.
The following weekend, American Dad invited us over with the kids. American Mom was away on business, and American Dad – who turned out to be a stay at home parent – was keen to hang out.
“I’m just going to tell him, straight off, that I don’t play golf,” said My Lawyer, on the way.
“Fine,” I said. “But try and say something good about golf at the same time.”
“I don’t know. That one called Rory? Is that Rory one British?”
“Why did you say I might be interested in golf?”
“You should google it. Google golf now, before we get there.”
Four hours later, we were drunk. The eight year old and the American eight year old were deep in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons, and the six and three year olds were having a dance party with the American five year old. My Lawyer and I sat, inebriated, with American Dad, congratulating ourselves for the courageous decision to send our kids to Dutch school. This is the way to integrate, right? Here we are, drinking with a golfer. If that’s not the kind of diversity we moved countries for then I don’t know what is.
There is no greater measure of a new friendship’s potential than the length of time you are required to pretend to be normal.
“Is it weird,” American Dad asked me in those early weeks, “if I say that Your Lawyer reminds me very much of my late, wise god-father in a way that brings me great comfort?”
“Yes!” I exclaimed, delighted. “It is weird! Let’s tell him!”
The months went by. American Family invited us to Thanksgiving. (Me: “Do we dress up? Should we bring pudding?” Them: “Pudding?”) We invited them to drink proper tea with us at our flat (Them: “your what?” Us: “Apartment.”).
We navigated Sinterklaas together, crafting Sinterklaas Surprise gifts for our kids to give to their classmates. They arrived that afternoon with a glue-gun, two packets of crisps and four bottles of wine, and that is when I knew these friends were keepers.
We did not once play golf. We drank and we talked and we talked and we drank. The eight year olds would discuss Dungeons and Dragons each day at school, whilst every other boy played football.
“He likes to chat in the playground, just like I do,” said the eight year old one night, tired and happy. Drunk on comradery.
My Lawyer, meanwhile, would disappear for whole evenings to play videogames with American Dad. They would talk about politics and swap poorly-written sci-fi novels.
“He fast-forwards through the scary bits in films, just like I do,” said My Lawyer, tired and happy. Drunk on alcohol.
And then, one morning late January, as our children began to approach something resembling Dutch fluency, American Dad and the American Kids showed up at our door with some news.
“We’re moving!” exclaimed the American five year old. “Really far!”
A man never knows how to say goodbye, said American journalist Helen Rowland, and a woman never knows when to say it. My Lawyer is not sure whether to give back the pile of poorly-written scri-fi novels. When he tries, American Dad refuses to take them. My Lawyer is not sure whether he is being polite or if he really wants them back. The children ask to have early birthday parties, so they can invite the American Children.
“He’s my only friend,” says the eight year old.
“Who else from your class can we ask over?” I ask calmly, as if I am an emotionally-balanced person.
The eight year old shrugs. “They all play football. I like to chat.”
Six months after the start of Dutch school, here I am again: pretending that my heart isn’t oozing from the bottom of my shoes and into the gutter.
We inherit American Family’s plants. American Dad sits in our apartment-flat, drinking his last good cup of tea, whilst their flat-apartment is dismantled with fiscally-fuelled expat efficiency, its contents rushed to Central America. We say goodbye and not-goodbye several times; at a farewell party, at a café, on the street. I cry at the wrong time.
American Dad comes over for one last late-night videogame session with My Lawyer, but just as they begin, the three year old vomits spectacularly all over his bed, prompting American Dad’s speedy and unceremonious departure. And that is that.
Whilst American Family fly to the other side of the planet, the three year old and the six year old spend the weekend throwing up. The risk-adverse eight year old, however, is fine; eight and a half years of compulsive hand-washing finally pays off. On Monday morning, he leaves the vomitarium to go to school without his rabid siblings and without his only friend. Swings and roundabouts.
When I collect the eight year old that afternoon, I take him to a café near school for an early dinner, partly to keep him away from the vomit-fest and partly to cheer him up. He chooses a table that we ate at with American Dad and the American Kids a few weeks before.
“I can’t believe,” says the eight year old, “that now he’s another person in the world again. Somewhere.” He gestures to the window, and sighs.
On the way home we spend some time peering into a thawing canal. The eight year old throws some twigs in, watching them slide and sink.
Suddenly, he shrieks.
I look down into the canal to see his blue specs balancing beside some twigs on the melting ice, like the remains of a snowman.
“Oh,” I say.
We both stare for a while, paralysed with helplessness. The canal wall is steep, and the ice is no longer stable enough to stand on. I tell myself that I can do some good parenting here. This is an obvious opportunity for a lesson in letting go and moving on.
“I think,” I say at length, “we have to say goodbye to the glasses.”
“NO!” wails the eight year old, bursting into tears. “I can NOT say goodbye!”
“Sometimes, we have to say goodbye.”
“No! We do NOT have to say goodbye!”
“There is no way we can get them back.”
“There’s always a way!”
Now I am confused, because there’s-always-a-way also sounds like a legitimate parenting lesson. I try to fashion a hook out of a long twig. This does not work.
“My shoes have amazing grip, Mummy,” says the eight year old. “I can make it.”
“You cannot make it. The drop is almost vertical.”
“Then dangle me down! We can do it!”
I look at him, the image of My Lawyer. Sometimes, the eight year old’s dogged insistence on a course of action can be reassuringly convincing, so confident is he of success. He has a parental aura. Like a wise god-father, bringing great comfort.
Moments later, as I am dangling my eight year old child into a canal with a heavy bike chain, it occurs to me that we are both definitely about to drown.
“Heb je hulp nodig?” says a voice behind me. I turn tentatively, to see a Dutch lady, two children and a dog, all surveying me with a bewilderment that is entirely appropriate.
Thank god, I think. A grown-up.
We drag the eight year old back up, and the Dutch lady phones her Dutch man, who comes out of their house behind us with a long rope. He attaches the rope to a road sign, abseils down the canal wall and retrieves the glasses.
“That was AWESOME!” says the eight year old, shaking the Dutch man’s hand.
The Dutch man smiles as he unties the rope with a casualness that suggests this isn’t his first time fishing foreigners and their belongings out of this canal.
We head home. I check my phone for news from the vomitorium. A new whatsapp message flashes up:
“I told you we didn’t have to say goodbye,” says the eight year old, inspecting his glasses for damage.
There is a lesson here. Somewhere.